Step up to the ring: if you belong to a party other than the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg wants a fight with you. UKIP, Labour, Conservative, it doesn’t matter. Today it just happens to be the turn of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, whom he describes as “false patriots”. Tomorrow it will probably be Dominic Cummings again. Boom! Bif! Pow!
None of this is too surprising, what with the elections approaching. Clegg has always sought to differentiate himself against the blue benches – particularly when it comes to Europe. But there was one attack he made yesterday that did take me aback. It was on David Cameron’s plan for EU reform, and it came dressed as a twisted sort of compliment. “He has told the public what he is going to renegotiate,” the Deputy Prime Minister informed the Sun (£). “And it is small fry… most of it I could agree with.”
It’s one thing criticising the Tories and their views on Europe, but this is something else: it’s an attempt to diminish what is set to be one of Cameron’s Biggest Offers at the next election, as well as stir up some trouble in Tory ranks in the meantime. It’s almost as through General Election 2015 is here already – and Clegg doesn’t care about entering a Coalition afterwards.
So what’s he up to? Sure, it could just be a spot of Extreme Electioneering. But I started wondering whether this was actually his backhanded way towards pledging an EU Referendum himself – as has been speculated recently. What better way of papering over the Lib Dem’s previous strong support and then strong opposition to a referendum than by saying, oh, it doesn’t matter really, it’s all so trivial, we may as well go along with it, alright? This chimes with his admission, last week, that an in/out referendum wouldn’t be a “red line” for the Lib Dems in any future Coalition negotiations.
But then another answer suggested itself in today’s Financial Times. Apparently, senior Lib Dems are urging Clegg to play down the possibility of another Coalition with the Tories. Tim Farron – who has a habit of appearing a few paragraphs into newspaper articles with some quite major complaints; see his comments to Polly Toynbee last year – indicates that his party leader may be doing things the wrong way:
“If we go into those coalition negotiations effectively saying, ‘We will not tolerate minority government’, then we’re effectively lying on the floor with jam and butter on ourselves, saying: ‘Eat me up’,”
Another “senior Lib Dem” then pops up with worse:
“There are some at the top of the party who are a bit too keen on keeping hold of the trappings of power.”
Which is quite harsh stuff; especially coming from a party that, on the whole, has stood loyally – or at least quietly – by its leadership throughout the travails of Coalition. No doubt the Lib Dem left isn’t just bilious at the thought of another union with the Conservatives, it’s also trembling at the prospect of the coming elections. And no doubt Clegg, in turn, is trying to assuage them with his attacks on the Tory bogeymen.
Of course, this creates a further problem for Clegg: it could alienate others in his party. Stephen Tall did a great job of summing up their grievances, with respect to the Lib Dem’s Europe policy, earlier, so I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say that the headline on Rachel Sylvester’s column (£) today, “Now Ed is under pressure from left and right”, could also apply to Nick.
Thus it ever was, I guess, with parties and their leaders. But the latest Lib Dem rumblings still raise the prospect of a particularly significant reckoning. As I’ve written before, Clegg used to recognise the essential malleability of his party, and moulded them from a centre-left force to one of the centre-right. But now, increasingly, it’s Clegg who appears malleable. Will he end up satisfying everyone in his party or no-one? Ask ‘em after this week’s elections.